Locks on the over/unders for the 2019-20 NBA season

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Locks on the over/unders for the 2019-20 NBA season

Rosters are set. Players are in the gym. Hope is in full tilt.

As I wrote last month, optimism is abound in the NBA. Super teams, for now, are a thing of the past as the Golden State Warriors and reigning champions Toronto Raptors lost their Finals MVPs in Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, respectively. Right now, all 30 teams are undefeated.

Even though the NBA is wide open this year, the league is still a zero-sum game. Sadly, every team can’t exceed expectations and there will be some teams that we look back on in April that make us wonder what the [blank] were we thinking in August. 

At the risk of looking dumb later in April, here’s what I’m thinking in August. Here are my three locks on the over (teams to exceed expectations) and three locks on the under (teams to miss expectations) compared to their projected win totals at the Westgate Superbook. 

Sixers over 55 wins

Can you be a sleeper team when you’re pegged for 55 wins? I think so. The Sixers have the best shot at being a 60-win team in the regular season. This defense has a chance to be historically good and most people overlook that side of the floor when they assess team projections.

Following the blueprint of the NBA’s top defending team last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers will boast a massive frontline of 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris, 6-foot-10 Al Horford and 7-footer Joel Embiid -- not to mention 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons and 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson. 

The Sixers underperformed defensively last season with the 14th-best ranking in defensive efficiency. But with the core’s continuity, a full training camp and the addition of Horford, it’s a good bet that this team will jump into a top five defensive unit. Assuming full health, I see the Sixers having the No. 1 defense just like the Bucks did after fielding the 18th-best defense in 2017-18. 

Offensively, I like Harris’ chances of a breakout season, filling Jimmy Butler’s role as closer. Horford’s presence will keep Embiid fresh in his age-25 season and I’m a fan of Richardson as the do-it-all role player. Some might feel queasy about the reliance of rookies Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, but I think the Sixers finish the season with the East’s top seed. If Simmons adds a jump shot, they’re championship favorites.

Nuggets over 52.5 wins

On the free-agency wrap-up Habershow episode with ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, we discussed how the Nuggets’ continuity is quietly making them winners this offseason. In a summer defined by player movement, the Nuggets retained every rotation player from a 54-win team while adding Jerami Grant and red-shirt rookie Michael Porter Jr. to the mix. 

Another reason to be optimistic? This was the fifth-youngest team in the NBA last season, per Basketball Reference. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are still under 25 years old and Gary Harris turns 25 in September. Paul Millsap, 34, remains the only rotation player in his 30s. For the bulk of the roster, the best is yet to come.

While the top of the West figure to need time to figure out their chemistry, the Nuggets will be able to hit the ground running. If they somehow stumble out of the gate, I think they’re a sneaky candidate to make a play for Chris Paul. As the Oklahoma City Thunder look to unload payroll, Millsap’s expiring $30.5 million contract matches up nicely with Paul’s big contract and now they have Grant to fill in for Millsap. Even if the Nuggets get off to a slow start, they have ways to upgrade for a title run. Take the over.

Pelicans over 39 wins

If you’re going to have Zion Williamson, you better load up on shooting. And that’s what executive vice president David Griffin did this offseason. He landed perhaps the best shooter on the market, JJ Redick, and brought in Italian sharpshooter Nicolo Melli to further space the floor as well. 

Where I think this team will really surprise is on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors could realistically make one of the 2019-20 All-Defense teams, while Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart could join them soon. Some numbers to back that up: Favors, Ball and Hart ranked inside the top five in defensive real plus-minus at their position while Holiday checked in at No. 8 among point guards (Holiday’s better than that in my book).

Williamson has the size and skill to be the rare above-average player in his rookie season. With veteran leadership, a revamped medical staff and stout defense, I think the Pelicans will be in the playoff mix next season. A 39-43 record seems on the low end.

Clippers under 54.5 wins

I hate to throw cold water on Steve Ballmer’s woo!-fest, but I’m still worried about Paul George’s short-term health. After undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders this summer, George stayed mum on his return timetable at the Clippers’ introduction presser. There are also murmurs that he won’t be back until November. For regular-season win projections, that’s not good news.

Beyond George’s return from double shoulder surgery, I think coach Doc Rivers will prioritize the postseason just like the Raptors did last season with Kawhi Leonard. While he may not miss 22 games like he did last season, I would expect the Clippers to be conservative when handling the face of their franchise. If Leonard plays half the team’s back-to-backs I’ll be stunned.

Yes, the Clippers won the offseason by getting two MVP candidates, but questions about their health make me nervous in the regular season. Postseason is a different story. I’m bearish on the Clippers, but that changes in May.

Nets under 43.5 wins

Boston fans will nod their heads as I say this: Development isn’t linear, especially with a Kyrie Irving team. Yes, the youthful Nets surprised everybody by landing Irving and Kevin Durant this summer after a Cinderella run to the playoffs. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed the playoffs next season.

The health of Irving’s right knee worried many executives this offseason; and that’s before we mention this relevant fact from Basketball Reference tracking: Irving’s teams have collectively fallen 34 wins short of their over/under projections since 2012-13 season, hitting the under on five of their last seven seasons (settle down, Celtics fans).

I don’t see Irving as a significant upgrade over D’Angelo Russell to balance out the injury risk; Irving has missed an average of 16.5 games per season over the last four seasons. If he misses 15-20 games next season, this season could go south quickly (Durant likely won’t come to the rescue until 2020-21.) Getting Irving and Durant was a big victory for the franchise, but I don’t see actual wins piling up until Durant comes back.

Hawks under 33.5 wins

The Hawks’ State Farm Arena scoreboard will need some load management days next season. Trae Young and John Collins are studs on the offensive end. Defensively, though? Yikes. 

This team is my pick for the worst defensive unit in the NBA next season. They were 28th in the league last season on defense, and that was with solid rim protector DeWayne Dedmon in the fold. Now he’s in Sacramento, which leaves Alex Len to clean up the mess in front of him. They also added Jabari Parker, who is famously not too interested in playing defense.

When your two top defenders may be a rookie (De’Andre Hunter) and a 42-year-old (Vince Carter), that’s not a good sign. This will be a League Pass must-watch team because of Young and Collins, but I don’t see them jumping up the standings until they add some defensive muscle. 

Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

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Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

Brandon Payne is looking at RV rentals. Daily rates, weekly rates -- anything to help him get through the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus. 

Since 2011, Payne has been Stephen Curry’s personal trainer and coach for Curry’s Underrated international tour, staying by the star’s side and coaching him through the highs and lows of his storied career. When Payne can’t be with Curry in person, the 40-year-old father of two sons, Carson, 12, and Collin, 9, uses text messages to stay connected from across the country. 

Payne doesn’t know when he’s going to be with Curry again. Payne’s company, Accelerate Basketball, is based in the Charlotte suburbs of Fort Mill, S.C., where Payne and his family live, just outside where Curry grew up and attended college at Davidson. Curry is currently following California’s stay-at-home order at his Bay Area home, a mandate that will likely last beyond April, according to California governor Gavin Newsom.

It’s a rainy Monday night in Charlotte and Payne can’t believe how quickly things have deteriorated. Less than four weeks ago, Payne had flown out to San Francisco to help prepare Curry for his return from a broken hand and then to Dallas for Curry’s next Underrated tour stop. 

Now, Payne is thinking about how to keep the lights on at Accelerate. 

Over the years, with Payne having to spend more and more time in Oakland and San Francisco working with Curry, hotel stays stopped making financial sense. In 2016, Payne signed a lease on a no-frills, one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Calif., that costs him about $3,000 a month -- a relative steal in the Bay Area, home to some of the priciest rental markets in the country.

With the NBA season in jeopardy and money getting tighter, Payne is trying to break that month-to-month lease and recover his belongings, a transaction that must be done in person. Months ago, that task seemed simple and straightforward. Get in an Uber, go to Charlotte International Airport, hop on a cross-country flight, snag a hotel. 

But in this climate, each stop on that itinerary makes Payne’s skin crawl. How do I get across the country without potentially exposing myself to the pandemic? 

To Payne, airports, planes and hotels are out of the question, so he’s researching RV rental rates so he can have a place to sleep on the 2,700-mile trek from Charlotte to the Bay Area. 

“I’ve learned very quickly, it’s not a cheap venture,” Payne says of the RV option.

The economic realities of the coronavirus pandemic are setting in. Curry is just one of Payne’s clients, ranging from six-year-olds to NBA draft prospects to NBA superstars. On a typical week, he and his staff will train hundreds of local young athletes at the small halfcourt gym housed inside a nondescript warehouse district. But with coronavirus spreading around the country, Payne had to take precautions to protect his clients from getting sick.

Normally, Payne supplies jump ropes, basketballs and tennis balls for his athletes. But on Monday, he texted, emailed and made phone calls to parents about an updated protocol. If anyone in a client’s household had traveled in the past 14 days or gotten sick in any way, Payne kindly asked them to stay home. He assured them that their paid sessions and packages would be honored in full at a later date.

If they were able to come, he wrote to them, be prepared for a different environment.

“We had a staffer standing at the door with hand sanitizer so that every person that walked in was hit with hand sanitizer,” Payne says.

The athletes were instructed to bring their own basketball, their own jump rope and be ready to do drills in a socially-distant manner, separated 6-to-10 feet from other athletes and receiving hands-off instruction from trainers standing across the room. Under normal circumstances, the players would train with two basketballs, dribbling with each hand. 

These weren’t normal circumstances. Only one ball, your own, to be safe. After each training session, Payne closed the gym and his staff wiped down every inch of the place to disinfect it. Then, they opened up the doors and repeated the process for the next round of workouts.

That was Monday night.

On Tuesday morning, after seeing the coronavirus spread in his county and news of a shelter-in-place rule being enforced in 48 hours, Payne closed his doors. He laid off four of his six staffers. Temporarily, he assured them. He’d reassess every two weeks.

“Very tough, emotional day,” Payne texted me.

The Walnut Creek apartment never seemed so far.

* * * 

Ask NBA athletes and coaches about whether they’ve experienced anything quite like this and most will point to the 2011 lockout. For months, players waited in limbo as the league and the NBA Players Association negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. 

During the lockout, players were free to engage in grassroots pick-up games, train with personal coaches and work on their craft as long as they weren’t using NBA facilities. They stayed in shape by playing in regular five-on-five charity games around the country. At one point, LeBron James and Kevin Durant faced off in a “Team LeBron vs. Team Durant” flag football game at the University of Akron that was streamed online.

That’s actually when Curry and Payne first met at Accelerate, introduced by one of Payne’s clients and former NBA player Gerald Henderson, who was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats at the time. Curry has been with Payne ever since.

Of course, “social distancing” wasn’t exactly part of the cultural lexicon in 2011.

Players these days can only dream about such gatherings. Late last week, after several NBA players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA sent a league memo to its 30 teams ordering them to close their training and practice facilities to all players and staff. The league also prohibited players from using public facilities like high school or college gyms to train. 

The NBA is not a social-distance friendly sport. As such, the basketball world has been in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. For at least one epidemiologist, the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on March 11 became a pivotal moment in the United States’ battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, signaling the severity of the crisis. NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision at least partially inspired other leagues, including the NHL and MLB, to put their seasons on hold, while the NCAA canceled March Madness entirely.

On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke at a press conference and urged New Yorkers to exercise outside in solitude rather than participating in team sports.

“You want to go for a walk? God bless you. You want to go for a run? God bless you,” Cuomo said. “There (should be) no group activity in parks. All sorts of kids playing basketball (on Saturday). I play basketball; there is no concept of social distancing while playing basketball. It doesn’t exist. You can’t stay six feet away from people playing basketball. You can, but then you’re a lousy basketball player and you’re going to lose.”

How do basketball players stay in shape when the simple act of playing basketball violates nearly all social distancing rules?

It’s a riddle that Payne is trying to solve for his NBA clients, most notably Curry. 

* * *

Inside the confines of a reported $31 million home he purchased last summer, Curry is keeping busy. 

Alongside his wife Ayesha and three young kids home from school, Curry is using his platform for philanthropic and civic causes. On Thursday, he hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who may be the most sought-after doctor in the country (Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Andre Iguodala and Common were just some of the names who dropped by). Two days after the NBA suspended the season, Curry and his wife Ayesha posted a video announcing their donation through their Eat Learn Play foundation to help ensure 18,000 Oakland children would have meals after schools were shut down. 

But Curry’s athletic pursuits have been minimal. Last Friday, while wearing a hoodie, sweat shorts and house slippers, Curry holed a trick shot with a wedge, ricocheting a golf ball off the inside of his front door and into a clear, plastic cup -- a video that generated almost 2 million views. Basketball hasn’t been on his mind much, according to Payne.

“To be honest with you, we’ve talked more about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback situation than we’ve talked about anything else,” Payne says with a laugh. “We talked a little bit about workouts and what he can do, but it’s not a whole lot right now.”

Curry does have a workout-friendly basement that rivals a luxury hotel fitness center, but he doesn’t have an indoor court on which he can do basketball-specific training. Contrary to popular belief, almost no NBA players do. 

According to league sources, players are scrambling to find private indoor gyms in their cities during the lockdown. One NBA team, multiple league sources say, had to reprimand one of its players after seeing a social media post of him working out with several athletes in a private gym over the weekend, a violation of the league’s and public health officials’ social-distancing guidelines.

“Stephen is fortunate because he’s got a larger home with a workout area with some pretty nice equipment in it,” Payne says. “He’ll be able to maintain things physically pretty well because he’s got the tools to do so. Some of the other guys I’ve been talking to? They’re a little bit more challenged.”

Most of Payne’s NBA clients are younger and live in luxury apartment complexes or condo buildings in their team’s city, not in spacious homes in the suburbs. Payne has asked his clients to send photos and videos of their living areas in order to customize workout programs for their limited space. 

One young NBA player sent him a video of his apartment complex’s fitness room. Not an option, Payne told him, strongly discouraging him from using that space due to concerns of infection. To try to compensate, Payne has been on the phone with players’ agents working to get his clients the athletic equipment they need during the layoff. At the top of the list are home-friendly TRX resistance bands and stationary bikes “where they’re able to get some hard cardio in without disturbing the people under them.”

“Even if you have a common area where you can get shots up, we’re learning that this thing can live on surfaces, sometimes days at a time depending on the type of surface,” Payne says. “You don’t know who’s been in there and who they’ve been around. It’s just very uncertain.”

Across the NBA, it’s becoming clear that the biggest obstacle -- beyond being limited to the space in your own home -- is uncertainty. Not just in the nature of the virus, but also the NBA’s undetermined schedule. 

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds across the country, players have no idea when the season will restart -- if at all. Silver said last Wednesday it was too early to speculate on a return date. Looking at other top basketball leagues around the world dealing with the pandemic, prospects of a quick return aren’t good. 

The Korean Basketball League canceled the rest of its season and the Chinese Basketball Association has pushed back its possible return date again to May 15, which would make for a four-month hiatus from play. For perspective, such a layoff would mean a mid-July return for the NBA. 

It could also be sooner. ESPN recently reported that NBA owners and executives viewed a possible mid-to-late June return “as a best-case scenario.” One such owner, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, said on Tuesday he was hopeful the NBA season would resume in mid-May based on his conversations with the CDC. 

Without a hard return date in mind, players trying to stay in shape are essentially shooting in the dark.

“The target date is what sets everything,” Payne says. “It’s your North Star. It’s what you base everything off of. You set your work schedule, your rest periods, how heavily you load, how lightly you load, how many days off you get. Everything is based off that date.”

* * * 

There was speculation that Curry wanted to return during the regular season so he could prepare for the Summer Olympics, but Payne insists that wasn’t a factor. Curry has never participated in the marquee global event, which was set to take place in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9, but has since been postponed to 2021. Curry did win gold medals with two World Cup teams in 2010 and 2014 but sat out in 2016 Olympics in Rio to fully recover from ankle and knee issues.

This time around, Curry is rehabbing back from a different kind of injury, luckily not to his ankle and knee joints. In October, Curry broke his hand and required surgery and an additional procedure to make sure his bones were in place. He has since experienced mild numbness as a result of some lingering nerve damage.

It was hard to tell that it affected him at all in his Mar. 5 return from a 58-game absence. Curry tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just 27 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors.

“For Stephen, the silver lining for him is that that hand gets a little bit longer (time) to round back into form and get that thing feeling exactly how he wants it to feel before he gets back out there,” Payne says. “And he gets more time with his family. That’s what we all really need to be thinking about.”

Payne has been splitting his time between taking care of his sons and getting to the Accelerate office, where he’s working to digitize his business. 

Last Friday, he gave a 75-minute Powerpoint talk on a virtual basketball coaches clinic site detailing Curry’s workout regimen, focusing on neuromuscular development, proprioception and strategies to game-ify workouts. Beyond virtual clinics, Payne is putting together workout video breakdowns on social media of Curry’s past training sessions with Luka Doncic and other star players. Everything is going online.
 
“As a coach, you’ve never had this amount of time to sit down and improve,” Payne says. “For most (coaches and trainers), this is going to be a really difficult time. It’s going to be extremely difficult. The hard point is, there’s going to be the temptation (to hold workouts and practices) because there’s going to be some players that are going to want to work out no matter what. And you have to balance the responsible decision with the decision that most affects your pockets.”

On Thursday morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg county implemented a stay-at-home order, ensuring that most of Payne’s Charlotte-bound clients would be limited to virtual sessions, none at Accelerate. It’s not certain when they’ll be allowed to return to the gym or when Payne can re-hire his staff. Or when he can get to Walnut Creek to retrieve his things.  

Or when he can train Curry again in person.

“There’s so much uncertainty right now, not only with my business, but are NBA players going to get paid past this next pay period? What does that look like? What do my clients have (in their savings)? Will they continue to pay me? Those are the questions I have. If I can save that money for the next three to six months, then that’s what I need to do.

“For the foreseeable future, with what’s in front of us right now, money coming in is going to be pretty tight. That’s reality.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

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NBC Sports

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

When the sun rose over Sacramento last Wednesday, thousands of local residents woke up with little idea that the NBA world was about to change. 

For Kings fans, the date had been circled on their calendars for months. NBA sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans were in town to play the hometown team, and on national TV no less -- the only time this season the small-market Kings would be broadcast to the entire country. And then there’s this: With only a month left in the regular season, the Pelicans and the Kings were both jockeying for a playoff spot. The winner of the game would move into ninth place, just three games back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.

This game was big, but something way bigger was happening all around them. 

At roughly 9:15 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, news began to break on a global scale. World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing that the global COVID-19 outbreak, also referred to as the coronavirus, was officially a pandemic. The WHO announced that, in the previous two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold.

In Sacramento, the WHO’s statement suddenly put the state of that very important Kings-Pelicans game into a different focus. Would the game -- scheduled to tip off about 10 hours later at 7:30 p.m. PT -- even be played?

The possibility of going on hiatus had been rumored in recent days as the NBA sent numerous memos to teams about its plans surrounding the evolving coronavirus situation. The day before the Pelicans-Kings game, the Golden State Warriors announced that they’d play their next game, a Thursday tilt against the Brooklyn Nets, in an empty Chase Center -- the first team to take that step. Sacramento’s arena, the Golden 1 Center, was only 85 miles up the road.

Later that afternoon, an answer: The Kings announced at 4:25 p.m. that, after consulting with local public health officials, the game would go on as planned -- with fans in the arena. 

The Kings would not take the same measures as their NorCal neighbors, but the announcement did carry the following warning: “Sacramento County Public Health guidance states that individuals considered high-risk, those over 60 years old, and anyone with an underlying chronic health condition or compromised immune system should avoid large public gatherings.”

In other words: game on, but be careful. So, the Pelicans and the Kings arrived at the arena as normal. Ninety minutes before tipoff, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took questions from the media as part of his normal pregame routine and was asked about the possibility of playing in front of empty arenas.

“You don’t want to play a basketball game with empty seats,” said Gentry, who, at 65 years old, was above the Sacramento County Public Health department’s recommended age threshold. “However, I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a minor thing by any stretch of the imagination. Not just in this country, but in the world, you have to do whatever you have to, to contain it or to manage it as much as you possibly can. It’s going to take some drastic measures and this may be one of them.”

Outside of the press room, fans began to fill the Golden 1 Center. For those inside the arena, it became clear that the 17,600-seat arena was going to be packed -- coronavirus scare or not.

Only one small thing: The New Orleans Pelicans never emerged from the tunnel for pregame warmups. Instead, Pelicans players, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, were still inside the visiting locker room, digesting what they just saw. 

* * *

At 6:27 p.m., just over an hour before the scheduled tipoff, a bombshell hit the NBA world via Twitter and reached the Pelicans’ locker room within seconds. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had been delayed for unknown reasons, was immediately called off. As the Pelicans began to wrap their heads around what was transpiring, it occurred to them that their next stop on the road trip was, as luck would have it, Utah.

Things moved too quickly for that thought to linger much longer. Four minutes later, the NBA announced a monumental decision to suspend the season indefinitely. Madness ensued across the league. 

The league statement said the NBA would close its doors at the conclusion of the night’s remaining games. Four games were ongoing, including Nuggets-Mavericks, which, at the time, was on the TVs in the Pelicans’ locker room. It was the ESPN lead-in for their own game.

With Utah-OKC nixed, the Pelicans realized that only one game remained on the night’s schedule, their own. 

In effect, the league decided that Pelicans-Kings was worth playing despite the positive test. Twelve minutes after the NBA announced it was suspending the season, the Pelicans’ official Twitter feed announced the game would still go on, citing the league’s statement.

But behind the scenes, something was awry. Fifty-five minutes after the Pelicans’ tweet stating that the game was on, the Pelicans tweeted that the game was off. 

* * *

NBA referees have a demanding schedule. Like players and teams, they jet around the country during the season working multiple games a week, totaling up to 60-plus games a season. But  NBA officials aren’t afforded all of the luxury accommodations that teams and players have. NBA teams fly via private charters; NBA referees fly commercial. 

On Wednesday night, Pelicans-Kings would be staffed by three referees who flew in for the game: crew chief Marc Davis, Courtney Kirkland and Justin Van Duyne. Referees stick together on the road and largely keep to themselves. In every NBA arena, the referee crew is given their own private locker room and are collectively ushered to, and from, the court by local police for security purposes. 

Inside the bowels of the Golden 1 Center, news about Gobert’s positive test began to spread as staffers stood around discussing what it meant for the night’s game. Multiple sources confirmed that shortly after the Gobert news broke, two referees emerged from the referee locker room and it was communicated that a third referee hung back because he had officiated the Jazz just two days prior, on Monday night. 

The Pelicans’ security personnel were alerted, sources said, and they immediately began communicating that information to the team’s front office members, who were congregated elsewhere in the arena.

Pelicans executives huddled up and grabbed their phones, quickly looking up recent Jazz box scores to confirm the information that had been relayed to them. And there it was: On Monday night, two days prior to this game, Courtney Kirkland had officiated the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City.

That wasn’t just any game. In that heated contest between championship hopefuls, Gobert was ejected by officials after a late-game scuffle with Raptors guard O.G. Anunoby. When a physical confrontation between Gobert and Anunoby started to escalate, two officials, one of which was Kirkland, sprinted into action and physically intervened to separate Gobert and Anunoby, prying the two players away from each other. 

At that moment, the Pelicans’ executives weren’t aware of that ejection sequence where bodies mixed together, but in their minds, it didn’t matter. If Kirkland officiated Gobert recently, the risk of infection was too great.

“We have to shut this down,” a Pelicans executive told his fellow staffers. 

There were only about 20 minutes remaining until tipoff, according to those present. Upon learning of Kirkland’s exposure to an infected player, Pelicans staffers walked to the visitor’s locker room and informed the players. One player wondered aloud, according to sources, “What’s the point of even playing this game?” It was decided as a team that they wouldn’t participate in the game, according to sources. Remain in the locker room, team officials instructed.

Meanwhile, on the court, the Kings continued to warm up. Referee crew chief Marc Davis and his colleague Justin Van Duyne stood at the scorer’s table, noticeably without Kirkland present. Davis spoke into a cell phone while Van Duyne waited at his side. From that nucleus at the scorer’s table, word began to trickle out that the game would be canceled due to Kirkland’s exposure. Both the national and local broadcast teams discussed Kirkland and the game’s postponement openly on air.

Suddenly, Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball walked out of the tunnel and began warming up with an assistant coach, creating the impression that perhaps the game would go on. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram later joined him on the court. Two Kings ballboys rebounded for Ball. Blue latex gloves covered their hands as they passed him the ball.

Moments later, Gentry emerged from the Pelicans’ locker room. He walked with a member of the Pelicans’ media relations team who had crossed his arms to signify to the surrounding media and game personnel. The game was off.

At center court, Kings public address announcer Scott Moak was handed a piece of paper. Moak began to read from the document, speaking into the microphone for the packed arena to hear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, out of an abundance of caution, at the direction of the National Basketball Association, tonight’s game has been postponed,” the announcement began to bellow in the arena. “We ask that you please exercise caution when leaving the arena.”

The Golden 1 Center crowd booed, nearly drowning out the audio from the on-air broadcasts. Security personnel herded the Kings players and Ball off the floor. With the announcement becoming official, the two Pelicans players walked back into the tunnel. Williamson and the rest of the team never took the court.

In the stands, a young girl in a Zion Williamson Pelicans jersey was shown in tears. There would be no game that night. Everyone went home.

* * *

How much risk is too much? It’s a question the Pelicans asked themselves inside at Golden 1 Center and in the hours and days since leaving Sacramento. It’s a question that we’re all asking ourselves. At what point does the risk of infection outweigh the benefit of proceeding with everyday life?

When the news of Gobert’s positive test was publicized, the NBA had some enormous decisions to make. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in talking to the TNT broadcast last Thursday, described the call to suspend the season as a “split-second decision.” All of 240 seconds had transpired between news of Gobert’s positive test and the season being suspended.

But the decision to let the Pelicans-Kings game go on as planned was a deliberate one. Initially, the league felt the risk didn’t reach the critical point of canceling the game. Twelve minutes after the Gobert news became public and 47 minutes before the game was set to take off, the teams had publicly assured fans that, despite the ongoing pandemic and suspension of the season, the nationally-televised game would go on. It wasn’t until word spread of Kirkland’s involvement that things began to change. 

During an interview on ESPN on Wednesday, Silver said he communicated with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive following the news about Gobert about potentially calling off the game. Silver noted being down one referee was a factor, but he ultimately decided to cancel “out of an abundance of caution,” per the league statement. The Pelicans’ refusal to take the court and risk infection more than likely forced his hand.

Like players on the court, officials are susceptible to transmit the virus. Whistles are transferred from hand to mouth and the ball is passed through those same hands. It’s not hard to see why team staffers were concerned about Kirkland’s recent assignment.

Dr. Karen Edwards, the chief epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine, shares those concerns.

“When you have individuals in close contact with each other where bodily fluids are shared, it certainly increases the risk of transmission,” Edwards said. “I certainly think that having people fly around and coming into contact with lots of other people, this is not going to help reduce the spread of the disease.”

The good news is that the NBA referee union confirmed an ESPN report on Saturday that Kirkland was indeed tested in Sacramento and the results came back negative for the COVID-19 virus. Kirkland reportedly stayed quarantined in his downtown Sacramento hotel room for days until he was cleared.

Since Gobert’s positive test was made public, six other organizations are known to have positive tests including the Brooklyn Nets (four players, including Kevin Durant), Los Angeles Lakers (two unnamed players), Boston Celtics (Marcus Smart), Philadelphia 76ers (three members of the organization), Detroit Pistons (Christian Wood) and Denver Nuggets (unnamed staffer or player). Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive.

On Wednesday night, Silver revealed on ESPN that he wasn’t surprised that the Nets saw positive tests, calling NBA players “super spreaders” because of their travel schedule, age and the fact that they often come in close contact with other individuals and large crowds. He indicated that eight teams have been tested at the recommendation of league doctors and public health officials. 

“We looked at that group of teams that were most proximate to the (Utah Jazz) and the circle expanded from there,” Silver said.

Plenty more have been cleared, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors. Mitchell and Gobert were the only positive tests among the 58 members of Utah’s traveling party. As of now, the COVID-19 virus is known to have spread to at least seven of the league’s 30 teams, though we’ve seen varying levels of detail in those positive cases. 

There’s no word on whether other referees have been tested. Sources at the league office and referee union both declined to provide further information, indicating that tests and the results of those tests would be made public at the discretion of the applicable state and local health authorities.

Last Tuesday, the Nets and Lakers played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the end of Brooklyn’s string of five games in eight nights against five different opponents. We now know that between both teams at least a half-dozen players tested positive. According to league data, 15 different referees officiated that five-game stretch for the Nets. And those referees went off to different arenas and worked with different referee crews. It stands to reason that the “super spreaders” label that Silver used to describe NBA players could also be attributed to officials.

When confronted with a positive test exposure, Edwards recommended that the league rewind the calendar 14 days, which is the general incubation period of the novel coronavirus, and analyze players, staffers and referees’ risk for infection across that two-week period. 

“That’s a good rule of thumb,” Edwards said. “The problem is there may have been players or referees that are positive and we just don’t know it because they haven’t been tested. But we don’t have enough testing. This is the problem: When we see a positive case, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Untangle that NBA web long enough and you begin to see why Pelicans officials were so concerned about the league’s initial decision to play the game and why infection curves are so steep.

“This is a good example (of that),” Edwards said. “This is why we see an exponential curve where you start seeing a few cases and then it grows and grows and grows. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’m going to guess that we are going to see more cases in the NBA. The fact that we’ve seen some, this is just the beginning.”

Edwards believes that the NBA’s decision to suspend the season will be a pivotal moment in the timeline of the United States’ attempts to contain the virus, calling it “the right move” to cancel the Kings-Pelicans game out of an abundance of fear of a recently exposed individual spreading the disease. The silver lining of high-profile players like Gobert and Durant testing positive is that it can be a game-changing lesson for the NBA world and beyond.

Said Edwards: “The message for everybody is, nobody is safe from this. There’s no determination that stars don’t get infected and others do. It’s an equal-opportunity virus and everybody is at risk.”

NBC Sports California Kings Insider James Ham contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter (@James_HamNBCS)Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.